Iftikhar Arif is one of those handful of living Urdu language poets who have achieved greatness through their inimitable craft; in his case, it is the art of storytelling in verse that is distinctly his own.

In Urdu poetry, carving your own niche is just as difficult as developing your own voice in modern English fiction. Arif has been able to accomplish that primarily because of two factors: his understanding and in-depth study of classical literatures, and his ability to use language with all its traditional trappings, without sounding trite.

Although this has been written about time and again in order to contextualise his poetic prowess, it has to be admitted that Arif has indeed effectively employed the metaphor of the tragedy of Karbala in contemporary locales. However, this fact seems to have upstaged his other literary feats. For example, his ghazal- and nazm-writing in which Karbala is not the main subject is no less awe-inspiring.

This is precisely the reason that the publishing of an Iftikhar Arif collection of poems often becomes a momentous literary occasion for the readers, in which they eagerly participate. Baagh-i-Gul-i-Surkh [The Garden of Red Roses] is his latest offering. Even the first reading of the collection will enable his admirers to claim that it’s a cerebral delight and an artistic treat for lovers of Urdu poetry.     

With Baagh-i-Gul-i-Surkh, once again, the poet has come up with nazms, ghazals and devotional poetry of a literary quality that none of his contemporaries can match. It has the usual flavour of diction steeped in classicism and some of the metaphors that he has used over the years. At the same time, the poems selected for the book have a newness that can only be had by pouring out emotions that germinate in those soft recesses of the heart where grief resides.

The title is taken from a ghazal’s first line. It’s an apt rubric, because both the colour red and the rose carry multiple meanings. If, for example, on the one hand it is indicative of a romantic liaison, on the other hand it can mean a situation that oftentimes becomes hard to come to grips with.

The publishing of an Iftikhar Arif collection of poems often becomes a momentous literary occasion. His latest is no less a cerebral delight and an artistic treat for lovers of Urdu poetry

The collection — since Arif is a deeply spiritual person and, as is the case with his earlier four books (Mehr-i-Do Neem, Harf-i-Bareyab, Jahaan-i-Maaloom, Shehr-i-Ilm Ke Darwazey Par) — begins with a hamd [poetry in praise of Allah]. A master artist that he is, in the opening two lines Arif expresses both his devotion to the Almighty and an issue that no mortal being can escape from — a leitmotif in his non-devotional poetry:

Jo teri raza ho meray kareem, urooj de ke zawaal de       Magar ik dua hai ke dil se khauf-i-fasad-i-rizq nikaal de

[If You so wish, You can lift me up or put me down       But I pray, rid my heart of the fear of the loss of worldly gains]      

This sets the tone for some beautiful, soul-searching naat [poetry in praise of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)], salaam and the kalaam [poetry] that has Karbala at its centre. So the thread that runs through all the pieces and lends the published work a heart-warming commonality is: the heart that beats with love for the ahl-i-bayt [family of the Prophet] and a place of solitude that’s essential for any creative endeavour.

Speaking of which, it seems that, over the years, Arif has begun to relish his solitude. This makes it sound like an individualistic vein, but that’s not the case with him. Like the oft-quoted Walt Whitman line, he contains multitudes. On a personal level, he longs for all things human — romance, comfort and company. One a societal level, there’s a marked sadness in his voice for the nearly lost culture of yearning for intellect and knowledge.

His regular readers may associate a geographical facet with it (the city of Lucknow, where he was born and raised), but the gist of his lamentation is to do with the tradition that he grew up with and looked up to:

Mahaafiz-i-ravish-i-raftagaan koi nahin hai       Jahaan ka main hoon mera ab wahaan koi nahin hai

[No one’s left to protect the tradition of yore       No one I know lives where I come from]      

The key takeaway from the couplet is the phrase ravish-i-raftagaan — an attitude or approach to life that no longer exists. The second line has a whiff of a personal journey. It’s the first, though, which speaks volumes for the regret. This theme emerges intermittently in the book with varying degrees of poignancy, blurring the line between the individual and the societal. Consequently, when Arif uses the personal pronoun ‘main’ [I], what he suggests is the culture that brims, or once brimmed, with scholarliness. Consider:

Shehr aashob ke likhnay ko jigar chahiyay hai  
Main hi likhoon to likhoon, koi nahin likhay ga

[It takes guts to pen the city of misfortune’s tale       Only I can write... no one else]

Or:   

Samandar ke kinaarey aik basti ro rahi thi
Main itni door tha aur mujh ko wahshat ho rahi thi

Qalam zanjeer, danish muntashir, khalqat hiraasaan   
Bayaan kis tarha ho paey jo haalat ho rahi thi

[The city by the sea was in mourning   
I was far away, but distraught   
Pen in chains, intellect fragmented, people harassed    How will I narrate what I saw and felt?]   

And yet, and after all, Arif is also a man, flesh and blood, whose progress as a sentient being is dotted with peaks and troughs, just like his creative journey. This is the juncture where the man gives away his emotional susceptibility. The pathos and melancholy that his nazms, particularly, are suffused with, reveal that side of his personality that often gets eclipsed by his fervent poems with religious content. A case in point is the little masterpiece called Aik Saneha 

[A Tragedy].

Dil kehta tha    
Dard ki shiddat kam ho gi tab sher likhein gey    
Maut ki dehshat kam ho gi tab sher likhein gey    
Dard ki shiddat kam nahin hoti    
Maut ki dehshat kam nahin hoti    
Bain, fughaan, faryadein, maatam    
Raaton ko sonay nahin daitey     Ji bhar ke ronay nahin daitey     So lein gey, tab sher likhein gey     Ro lein gey, tab sher likhein gey
    

[Thus the heart spoke: 

I’ll write a poem when the pain will lessen    
I’ll write a poem when the fear of death will

subside

(But) the pain doesn’t go away    
The fear of death stays    
Wailing, weeping, supplication and lamentation...   
Don’t let me sleep at night    
Don’t allow me to weep    
I’ll write a poem, once I fall asleep    
I’ll write a poem, once I’m done weeping]    

Such a mood can lead to an existential crisis — the sense of the futility of existence. Even if it’s a momentary phase, a fleeting thought that enters his head space and leaves in a trice, Arif doesn’t let go of it and captures it with the diligence of a workman. He turns the idea into a ghazal, composed in a metre that’s usually shorter than what he is accustomed to writing in.      

Aankh ki nami bhi raaeygaan       Dil ki roshni bhi raaeygaan       Karabor-i-ishq bhi fuzool       Khabt-i-aagahi bhi raaeygaan

[Futile is the moistness in the eye       And the light emanating from the heart The business of love, no use       Futile is the obsession with knowingness]        

But it doesn’t take the poet long to recover from this feeling and he moves effortlessly back to the familiar realm where he finds solace: spirituality.   

Meray saaray khwaab lauta de mujhay
Aey Khuda, taufeeq-i-girya de mujhay

[Return all my dreams to me  God, give me the strength to wail]   

Arif’s dedication to, and love for, the ahl-i-bayt becomes the reason for his extraordinary poetic output which enriches the readers, by the time they reach the last pages of the book, with spiritual light. Even the last two poems in the collection, adapted from Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s works, have that mystical streak in them.

It wouldn’t be unwise to round off this review by quoting two verses from a ghazal that encapsulates the above given arguments well: 

Badgumani mein kabhi, gaah khush andeshi mein 
Kat gayi umr marasim ki kami beshi mein 
Ik kitaab aur naee aaee naey khwaab ke saath 
Ik chiraagh aur jala hujra-i-darveshi mein

[Sometimes in mistrust, sometimes with hope  Life was spent dealing with the inhabitants of the world  A new book arrives with a new dream  Another lamp is lit in the dervish’s chamber] 

The reviewer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 21st, 2021

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